The writer behind Travels with Lulu, Marissa Cortes waited more than a decade to take a dream trip through South America — and then did so with her not-quite-one-year-old daughter in tow. As she explains, “I took my forever love for travel, my new love for Lulu, and packed our bags for a five-month trip.” She created one of our favorite travel blogs along the way, documenting their adventures. We spoke to the inspiring mama about the most kid-friendly countries in the world, pro-level packing and where’s next on their travel wish list.
What inspired your big trip through South America with Lulu?
For over ten years I dreamed about an extended trip through South America but was too busy building a corporate career in Manhattan to pursue it. Lulu was born during a period of tremendous change in my personal and my professional life, and it occurred to me that the best time to pursue a life-long dream is when the circumstances seem the most impossible! I was a new mom with a lot to learn about motherhood and about myself. As travel has always been my greatest passion, I decided to discover those answers while visiting lands I had only read about in books or seen in movies. It catapulted me into a new life of exploration, and inspired me to rediscover my love of writing. Lulu and I have continued to travel sporadically since for extended amounts of time, returning to Brazil, to Europe, and to Asia.
Can you share your favorite travel memory and your biggest travel fail?
It’s difficult to pick one favorite memory. I’ve had some unforgettable moments while alone with Lulu on different exotic beaches, each of us sitting quietly watching the waves hit the shore. Other favorite memories involve particular sounds of a place. Whether standing before tango dancers in Buenos Aires or stopping mid-stride on an Istanbul street as the call to prayer echoed throughout the city—there are too many of these precious moments to cite just one.
One of my biggest travel fails was when Lulu was 18 months old and we were off to Europe. I thought the most practical way to transport her around would be with her Britax Marathon car seat and a GoGo Babyz Travelmate, but it all proved too cumbersome. After two weeks, I reached my limit in Seville, Spain and went to the local post office with the intent of shipping the car seat back to New York. I was on the verge of tears trying to explain everything in broken Spanish when woman came to my aid and suggested I donate the goods to a local convent and orphanage. She led us there and then invited us to her home nearby. Upon entering a tiny door, we walked right into an open courtyard and discovered she lived in an ornate palace from the 16th century! This kind, unassuming woman lived in a splendid, regal home passed down from her ancestors. It was such a unique experience, and we spent a lovely evening getting to know her, her husband and their teenage daughter. So it was a travel fail with a wonderful outcome.
If you had to chose, what are the top three most kid-friendly countries you visited, and why?
In Argentina, perfect strangers would ask, or volunteer without request, to entertain Lulu, talk to her, and play with her so I could either take a picture hands free or eat a meal. People often engaged her in conversation before she could even talk, more so at times than they did me! I found it very comforting. The response to children was often extremely open and welcoming.
In Brazil, I found miniature bathrooms specifically built for kids, adjacent to separate restrooms for men and women. Certain restaurants had a playroom in which smaller patrons could play, with restaurant employees overseeing them, while parents could chat and eat comfortably at their tables. If there was not a designated line for mothers with strollers—and there usually was— I was always whisked to the front of every line.
In the Philippines, there always seemed to be someone taking an interest in my daughter, ensuring she was catered to and cared for. I do believe however that this may be in part to their disbelief that I was not traveling with a nanny, a ubiquitous figure in most families’ homes! People were so open in offering help with Lulu—although the facilities for kids were nothing like in South America.
Which destinations have surprised you the most?
While on a four-seater jumper plane from Boipeba Island to the city of Salvador da Bahia, I had a conversation with a Frenchman who lived in Brazil. He told me the very next day he was moving to Beirut, Lebanon to work for an upscale international restaurant brand. Beirut had never been on my radar—and listening to his stories of cosmopolitan nightlife and Mediterranean shores, I was intrigued. As luck would have it, eight months later Lulu and I were staying in Istanbul, Turkey, when a good friend back in New York City suggested we travel to nearby Beirut to visit her father. I had never been to the Middle East. The sights, the sounds, the smells of the city felt so new. The energy too—not at all times positive, as one is somehow always aware of underlying religious conflicts—but the energy I found refreshing. I wasn’t sure I would enjoy visiting this part of the world, but it only made me more curious to explore its countries deeper.
What are the places you’ll return to, and where was one visit enough?
I will return time and again to Florence and Capri in Italy, Jose Ignacio in Uruguay, Trancoso in Brazil, Mal Pais in Costa Rica, Spain, London, Paris, and parts of Southeast Asia. Italy is one of my favorite places to vacation and I can’t wait to eventually take Lulu to the land of her favorite food, pasta. It’s hard for me to say once is enough for any destination, no matter how bad the experience may have been. Enjoying travel is also about having an open mind. I could have an awful experience during one trip, but who knows what another visit may bring.
Lulu is four years old now; how has traveling with her changed and what are you most looking forward to about future trips together?
It was easiest to travel with Lulu in certain ways before she turned one. I traveled with her in a sling or in a carrier and toted her around with relative ease. By the time she turned two years old, travel became more challenging. She was fussy and whiny with a mind of her own and very vocal about it—as two year olds are apt to be, before they can communicate clearly. While I tried to be patient, patience as a solo parent was extremely hard on a plane where we were surrounded by hundreds of strangers, in foreign cultures, or in restaurants where there were other diners. I will admit we traveled a little less that year. When she turned three, it became a lot easier.
We spent a month back in South America that summer, then a month in Southeast Asia that winter. Her eyes were wide open, she was absorbing everything and asking questions, and surprisingly retaining observations that she would refer to in the future. Now at the age of four, her mind is limitless in terms of geography. We have a huge map of the world in our living room wall that she studies. She talks about wanting to go on picnics in China and sailing in Japan! As she already has certain destinations in mind, I look forward to taking her to experience other cultures in Asia, as well as to Africa in the future.
We have a lot yet to see and to learn together. I am most looking forward to feeding her wanderlust and growing her understanding of other people, as travel has always done for me.
What’s the funniest travel concession you’ve made to Lulu?
I don’t know if this counts as it was not actually my choice, but during a four-hour layover in Taipei to Manila, the gate where our next plane was scheduled to board happened to be the “Hello Kitty Gate.” There's a Hello Kitty store, a Hello Kitty-themed jungle gym/play area for kids, and the whole gate is awash in Hello Kitty décor. A sensory assault for some, but heaven for a little girl! Eva Air even has a plane covered in Hello Kitty characters. So instead of exploring the wonderful Taipei airport, with all its foreign offerings and shopping opportunities, I stayed with Lulu in the Hello Kitty playground and together we watched Hello Kitty cartoons, in Taiwanese, on the lounge TV screen. In that sense certain parts of Asia are also great destinations for kids. They embrace and have a fascination for youth-oriented products, characters, and brands, that make it all the more fun to experience with a young child.
And finally… what won’t leave home without?
It was only later on that I caught on to the beauty and ease of a Rimowa suitcase, or any 4-wheeled hard suitcase for that matter. This was again after learning crucial lessons on our second long trip to Europe, when the large luggage Lulu and I shared was soft and only had two wheels. I also won’t leave home without my trusted Spacepak packing system. I bought it at Flight 001 before our first big trip and have used it every single trip since. There is even a Spacepak Kids that I have used specifically for Lulu’s things. It helps me a great deal with organization. I can also fit a lot more into my suitcase than usual, and as a traveling mother, I can never have too much extra space!